Texas’ first prison seminary opens today, spreading Christian faith among long-term inmates

Posted on: August 29th, 2011 by Patrick Michels No Comments

While students head back to class all around Texas, today marks the first day of school for a unique class of seminary students, all serving lengthy or life sentences at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Darrington Unit south of Houston.

Based on a years-old seminary program in Louisiana, the Texas program was spearheaded by veteran Texas Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and tea party favorite Texas Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). As the Austin American-Statesman’s Mike Ward reported Saturday, the seminary won’t receive state funding, but will be sponsored by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the nonprofit Heart of Texas Foundation:

“The opportunity to provide education and growth for those in a prison unit … is the opportunity to enable these inmates to discover a significant new way that, through study, will change life, perspective and hope for hundreds,” Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a statement.

The Fort Worth seminary will provide teachers. The Heart of Texas Foundation, a prison ministry group based in Fulshear, is providing an $8,000 theological library.

The program is billed as non-denominational, but as the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast points out, the program’s sponsors aren’t known for religious openness. “The Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth was the site of a major fight between fundamentalist Baptist factions and less dogmatic religious scholars,” Scott Henson wrote on the blog, “including Russel Dilday, the moderate president who was ousted by fundamentalists in 1994 for not toeing the hardest possible theological line.”

The program “appears very sectarian in nature,” the Texas ACLU’s Dotty Griffith told the Houston Chronicle‘s Lindsay Wise. “Imagine the public outcry that would arise if the state were to partner with Muslim institutions and train them to be imams and turn them out to minister Islam to other inmates,” suggested Americans United for Separation of Church and State lawyer Alex Luchenitser.

The Chronicle reported the Heart of Texas Foundation has raised enough to cover more than a year of the program at $100,000 annually. After four years of study, according to the Statesman, inmates “will receive a bachelor of science degree and be assigned to other state prisons” where they can minister to other inmates.

At a Garland Tea Party gathering Friday night, Patrick related the origin story of the seminary program, which he said began when he convinced Whitmire to come tour the Louisiana program. Patrick also passed out DVD copies of a documentary he executive-produced with the Heart of Texas Foundation, and reproductions of his own watercolor painting of the Statue of Liberty with the face of Jesus Christ.

A watercolor painting by Texas Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston

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